Athens News Matters: Public Health Expert Discusses the Omicron Variant Spike in our Community

Jan 7, 2022

Credit newsroom.ucla.edu

For nearly two years, we’ve been reporting on COVID-19, and its effects on the local health care infrastructure and the community at large. Throughout that time, we’ve turned time and time again to Dr. Grace Bagwell Adams, Associate Professor and Assistant Dean for Outreach, Engagement, and Equity at the University of Georgia College of Public Health, and the principal investigator of the Athens Wellbeing Project.

UGA's Dr. Grace Bagwell Adams
Credit publichealth.uga.edu

WUGA's Martin Matheny spoke with Dr. Bagwell Adams earlier this week to get an update on the Omicron variant.

This transcript has been edited for clarity

Martin Matheny:

So, I want to start back at the beginning and talk about Omicron versus original COVID and the Delta variant. How does this new variant differ from what we've seen before?

Dr. Bagwell Adams:

It is more transmissible, which means it spreads faster.

So, the new variant is different I think in a couple of really key ways. Based on the latest evidence that we have, what we know is that it is more transmissible, which means it spreads faster. So, when we first started learning about COVID transmission and the Alpha wave and then of course the waves that followed, we were talking about transmission happening in a matter of minutes.

For context, with Omicron it really is a matter of seconds. And so, it's pretty clear that when we say that this virus is more transmissible, what we mean is, it's a shorter exposure window. It takes less time of being exposed to an infectious person for a person to get enough exposure to the virus themselves to get sick.

I think the second thing that's interesting about this; one of the things that we're learning from looking at the evidence that's coming out of the Omicron variant in the UK, is that with Delta, it's clear that the virus would come into the nasal passages, and then Delta did a really good job, unfortunately, in making its way down into the lungs, which is why a lot of people got really, really sick with Delta. COVID would set up shop in your lungs, you would see people have scarring in the lungs, get really serious cases, and then pneumonia and many hospitalizations and folks who had to be put on a ventilator, and then many deaths.

With Omicron, it seems that the virus is much better at staying up in the nasal passages and really infecting the upper respiratory airways. Which may be, some scientists are saying, one of the reasons why we are seeing Omicron be a little bit milder in patients. But what that means, back to the transmissibility, is that it's staying in the nose, which means that the virus is much more contagious.

Martin:

What should people be looking for in terms of symptoms?

Dr. Bagwell Adams:

It's really important for people to pay attention to the symptoms that we've been talking about since the beginning. So clearly, when you have a fever. When you have a cough, a dry cough. When you have some fatigue that is not necessarily what you normally experience. Those are some of the main things that we need to pay attention to.

But I would also encourage folks who have regular cold symptoms, so nasal congestion, pressure in the sinuses, a headache, those are also symptoms that we're seeing. And I think, especially when you start to have some of these symptoms all together at once, then it really is wise for you to go ahead and get tested.

Martin:

It seems like there are a lot more breakthrough cases related to the Omicron variant. Should this be cause for concern as far as the efficacy of the vaccine, and maybe future variants?

Dr. Bagwell Adams:

Those vaccinations are still doing a great job at keeping folks out of the hospital and preventing death. I think that's the bottom line.

  

What we know is that it looks from the data in other places in the world that have experienced the Omicron variant that also have had vaccinations, and the vaccination is still working really well in terms of preventing severe disease. That's what you really need to remember. Even though we might see an increase in incidence and prevalence of infections among those who've been vaccinated, and even vaccinated and boosted, what we see is that those vaccinations are still doing a great job at keeping folks out of the hospital and preventing death. I think that's the bottom line.

Martin:

Most school districts in Georgia, including Clarke County schools, are returning from winter break to in-person learning this week. President Joe Biden has said schools should stay open. Do the potential problems, especially in terms of student achievement and mental health outcomes that come with virtual learning, do those potential problems outweigh the COVID risk, especially in the ages five to 18 cohort?

Dr. Bagwell Adams:

That's such a great question. I mean, you know, I think that it's going to take us a very long time in terms of peer reviewed research to truly understand the huge effects of COVID and what missing school has done for children. So, we're just beginning to understand the full extent to which being virtual for learning has affected our children.

The question that you had asked, I feel is much bigger than me. I'll give you my own personal opinion on that. I think, especially when it comes to a situation where we have intense intergenerational poverty, and many of our students, when it comes to their meals during the day, two of their three meals coming from school, protecting the food security, protecting the ability of children to not just to learn, but to thrive in general. I think that we need to do everything that we can to keep them in-person and learning.

I think one of the more concerning things that we're seeing, too, is that we're seeing more children who are being hospitalized because of COVID with this wave than we have seen in the past.

Now, that being said, what we see with Omicron and the transmission is with this thing so much more contagious, it is going to be the case that we're going to see a lot more children getting sick with Omicron in our school system. I think one of the more concerning things that we're seeing, too, is that we're seeing more children who are being hospitalized because of COVID with this wave than we have seen in the past. So, all that I can say is that we have vaccines that have received the go ahead, the green light, for children to receive them over the age of five. And I think that to whatever extent parents can protect their children with those vaccines, that that's the best thing that we can do at this juncture.

But, Martin, I think when we talk about going back into the schools, what's going to happen even if Clarke County returns in person, which it looks at this juncture like they're still planning to do, we're going to see a lot of teachers, bus drivers, administrators getting sick, too. So, it's about the cases and children, but it's also about our school system’s ability, and this is what we're seeing nationwide with many different industries whether it's the airline industry, the healthcare industry, it’s going to be a rough few weeks, I think, with staffing shortages across basically every industry that you can think of.

And so, ultimately, having a choice really is a privilege. It could be the case, both locally, statewide, and nationally that we see a few weeks here where it's not a choice anymore. Because if schools don't have the staff that they need to run the school, then there will have to be some decisions that are made to go virtual for a time.

Martin:

I want to talk a little bit about vaccinations, especially locally. At the time that we're talking, far less than half of Athens-Clarke County residents over the age of five are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. The vaccination rate seems to have kind of plateaued over the last month, few weeks. How do we get these numbers up?

Dr. Bagwell Adams:

I'm very concerned that our lack of vaccination... is going to quickly overwhelm our hospitals in the coming weeks.

  

So that, again, is a question that I think communities across the world are wrestling with. It's really clear that the southern United States has had levels of vaccine hesitancy that are much higher than the rest of the country. And I think that we are going to pay the price for that as Omicron hits us because what we know about the vaccines is that they prevent hospitalizations, death. I'm very concerned that our lack of vaccination, especially full vaccination, and boosters in this region, is going to quickly overwhelm our hospitals in the coming weeks.

When you look at why people don't get vaccinated, I think one of the biggest mistakes that researchers make, and I include myself in this, is treating a person who doesn't get vaccinated as a monolith or treating that group as a monolith, which is to say, just assuming that everybody who has not gotten vaccinated has done so for the same reason or set of reasons. And what we find when we look at some national studies being done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, is that there are actually lots of different reasons why people don't get vaccinated. And they are not all mutually exclusive. Right? So, a person's decision, or choice—again choice is a privilege so let's assume for a second that you have the resources like transportation and information that you need to get to the vaccination itself—but the choice to get vaccinated is really pretty complex.

Martin:

It seems like there's been a lot of confusion over the course of the pandemic about what exactly to do, the guidance around it. But is it fair to say that the essentials of practicing good public health on a personal level really haven't changed; wash your hands, wear a mask when you're in public, avoid large gatherings? That hasn't changed, right? That's still what we need to be doing?

Dr. Bagwell Adams:

Yeah, I think that's true. Since the beginning, one of the biggest mistakes that have been made at the national, state level, I think, has been around mixed messaging.

But yes, we need to wash our hands, we need to wear a mask, whether you're vaccinated or not right now. You need to socially distance and avoid large crowds when you can, while we're in a large wave. And hopefully, the testing shortage will start to get better as we have more resources at the national, state level towards testing, but you need to get tested if you're sick and symptomatic. If you're symptomatic, you need to behave as if you're sick. So that's the only thing I'd add to your list, right there. Those are the consistent things and that's what we need to continue to do, especially as we are in the depths of the Omicron wave.